The launch of former chief of staff Benny Gantz’s election campaign revives the debate over the military campaign most closely identified with him, Operation Protective Edge. Don’t be too impressed by the video Gantz’s party released, which proudly counted the Palestinian losses in the war conducted in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014 (and included both those that the army identified as terrorists and those whose identity was unclear).
Protective Edge wasn’t the overwhelming success that the propagandists now present. Rather, it was a campaign full of failures and disappointments. Gantz had other partners in this venture, chief among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Officers who served in Gantz’s headquarters at the time now offer a fairly unified opinion. They say the operation suffered from extremely faulty preparation and was full of mistakes during the fighting. They tie the three-and-a-half years of relative quiet since then not to the successful functioning of the Israel Defense Forces but rather to the relative strength between the sides, like with the northern border after the Second Lebanon War.
Israel is so much stronger militarily than Hamas that any fight between them leaves the other side bruised and deterred. However, without a decisive military victory and absent a complementary diplomatic process, the resultant stability remains relative and temporary. Since the demonstrations along the border began last March, it has been almost completely undermined.
The army has been aware of the fundamental problems from other campaigns, dating back to at least 2006, from the Second Lebanon War to the two previous Gaza campaigns – 2008’s Cast Lead and 2012’s Pillar of Defense. In the era of asymmetric wars, Israel is struggling to win decisively. Protective Edge, like its predecessors, was another quite sad and frustrating chapter.
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In all these wars and operations, the military dealt with an incalculably inferior enemy. However, the enemy, be it Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza, was also prepared in such a way that made it hard for the army to defeat it, embedded as the enemy was deep in the heart of a civilian population, aiming a significant part of its fire at Israeli population centers.
Taking the fight to the enemy’s territory, even partially, elicited a price – heavier losses for the military in an age when the Israeli public is less prepared to pay with victims, and massive killing of enemy civilians, leading to international criticism and often pressure on the government to quickly end the operation.
In all cases, the military never received direction from the politicians to wield its full force and to try and win decisively. Neither the Olmert government (twice) nor the Netanyahu government (twice) sought that. At the height of Protective Edge, when the military was asked by the cabinet to estimate the costs of a scenario in which it conquered all of the Gaza Strip, and it responded that hundreds of soldiers would be killed, someone made sure to leak the pessimistic forecast to Israel’s Channel 2.
In the case of Protective Edge, political miscues added to the mix. The government, as the state comptroller stated in his report, had not looked at any strategic alternatives to the draconian policy of the blockade it was imposing against Hamas. Even more seriously, when tensions between the two sides got worse in the wake of the kidnapping of three Israeli boys in Gush Etzion in June 2014, Israel rejected proposals to ease the humanitarian situation in Gaza and only ramped up the pressure. In retrospect, some expressed remorse, among them the defense minister at the time, Moshe Ya’alon, who linked up his party with Gantz this week.
So, what part did Gantz and the military play in the failure and disappointment after all? To answer this, one should actually check out the farewell interviews that the outgoing chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, gave two weeks ago. Eisenkot mentioned in each of these articles the enormous work he did to rehabilitate the military’s land forces in recent years. (There are of course those who claim, like Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yitzhak Brik, that there remains an enormous amount of work ahead.) However, who left the army to Eisenkot in such shape? At least some of the decline occurred under Gantz’s watch as chief of staff, under defense ministers Ehud Barak and Ya’alon.
The military under Gantz failed to pass two multiyear plans, which were completed and then filed away, because of conflicts at the political level or within it. The army also reached a breaking point regarding training, to the extent that it announced it was totally suspending exercises for six months, precisely in the weeks that preceded the outbreak of the fighting in Gaza.
And then the war came. Protective Edge merely concretized the scope of the problem. After a week of exchanges of fire with Gaza (aerial attacks from here, rockets from there) the Netanyahu government agreed to an Egyptian cease-fire. A platoon of Hamas fighters emerged from an offensive tunnel in Israeli territory, near Kibbutz Sufa. While the armed Palestinians were killed in the attack by the air force, footage of the incident shook up Israeli opinion and sowed panic among residents of the communities bordering Gaza. Under public pressure and in response to the constant goading by cabinet minister Naftali Bennett, it was decided to launch a limited ground operation to destroy the attack tunnels.
The military had a general problem, the level of the ground forces, and a specific problem, the unfamiliarity with the challenge of the tunnels. As Haaretz revealed in detail after the war, the army was totally unprepared to deal with the tunnels. The intelligence that was collected regarding them was partial and limited. The units didn’t have the proper means (some ad libbed in the field, while others were hastily called up from civilian companies). They lacked basic training to deal with the tunnels, and they were operating without a standard fighting doctrine. Ya’alon initially predicted in public that locating and destroying the tunnels would take two or three days. In reality, the operation lasted almost a month-and-a-half.
Ya’alon and Gantz knew that the cabinet was sending the army on a mission for which it was unprepared, without a suitable plan. There was no relationship between the minor plan for taking care of lone tunnels and the relatively wide-scale operation that the army fell into, during which it reported that it destroyed over 30 tunnels. Bennett quotes exchanges from the cabinet in his attacks on Gantz. He called for action. Ya’alon warned against turning destruction of the tunnels into the goal of the campaign, and Gantz said that the operation was liable to drag Israel into conquering Gaza anew.
What’s more important is what they didn’t say. Although they had to know that the military was unprepared for the mission, they didn’t convey that clearly to the cabinet and to the government. Rather, they simply sent it into battle and relied on the functioning of the commanders in the field. The army is obliged to fulfill the orders of the politicians, but it is not absolved from explaining the expected consequences. The result was a hesitant, long operation with limited achievements, in which 68 soldiers were killed. The entire fighting lasted 51 days, without bringing victory over Hamas.
An additional serious problem concerned the intelligence. Throughout the operation, the military took pride in “pushing” intelligence at an unprecedented rate to the frontline units. In contrast, there was a lack of sufficient intelligence about the tunnel threat (even though most of the tunnel paths had been located ahead of time by intelligence officials). The intelligence branch erred over and over in giving optimistic forecasts about the readiness of Hamas to accept a cease-fire, which were refuted throughout most of the period of fighting. The head of the unit, by the way, was Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who, like Gantz, is an officer whose appointment as chief of staff was approved by Netanyahu.
The severity of the failure became absolutely clear in the internal investigations of the General Staff. The military commenced an operation that did not at all match its plans. The firepower used was frightfully massive and in many instances ineffective; the use of ammunition and its supplies brought the army dangerously close to red lines it had set for itself; and the result of the handling of the attack tunnels was far from the rose-tinted narrative that the army sold to the public.
During construction of the obstacle against the tunnels on the Gaza border during the past two years, 17 attack tunnels have been discovered near the border. That apparently bears witness that the destruction of tunnels in the operation was not completed. The military blew up some of them, and Hamas rushed to repair them. Other tunnels weren’t uncovered at all during the operation, but rather were only located in the years after it.
The ground forces began the operation in an inferior state. The alternative plan that it proposed, which included exchanging blows from afar, didn’t provide a solution for the problem in Gaza. And when it was given the mission of the tunnels, the military wasn’t prepared for it as required, also because it had not properly evaluated the importance of the threat before the war. Add to this the sin of not reporting; as in 2006, most of the ministers were unaware of the severity of the defects when they approved the offensive operation.